Saturday, August 4, 2012

Take A Lesson From Yoda; Flyboys Is An Average Cliche War Movie

The Good: Moments of acting, Moments of effect, Moments of plot
The Bad: Everything is predictable in this movie, pacing, LONG!
The Basics: In a disappointing war movie filled with cliched character and situations, Flyboys manages only to disappoint this reviewer. And Yoda.

I grew up watching The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) and one of the concepts presented in the movie resonated well with me. When Luke Skywalker arrives on Degobah, he tells a stranger he meets he is looking for a great warrior, to which Yoda responds, "Wars not make one great." It's chic to produce war movies while the U.S. is at war because: 1. It capitalizes on any form of pro-war movement, 2. It reminds the citizens of past glories in war which might inspire them to enlist, and 3. It's bound to be reviewed better because few people want to talk bad about a war movie when there's a war going on. I suppose it's unpatriotic. Well, to lift from our comrade Yoda, "War not make movies great." Certainly that's the case with Flyboys, now out on DVD.

Blaine Rawlings is an American who hops the pond to France in the last portions of World War I before the American's joined the war. Fleeing an arrest warrant for beating a banker who foreclosed on his ranch, Rawlings finds himself as part of the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of fighter pilots who learn to fly the relatively new technology of airplanes, then go off to fight the Germans. Blaine and his companions shoot and get shot at by Germans, rescue the French and overcome their various interpersonal problems while never learning French and never surrendering.

Good for them.

Now, in real life, there was a Lafayette Escadrille and they were essentially Americans fighting in French airplanes and becoming heroes for doing that. How much of their story actually makes it into Flyboys is in serious doubt by me. I say this not because I deny the heroism of the Lafayette Escadrille, but rather how very plot convenient their assorted combats and deaths actually were.

The detachment that Blaine belongs to is made up of every possible war movie stereotype for a war movie made after 1970. So, our heroes consist of: Blaine (All-American), Skinner (Black social statement), Briggs (his prejudice, wealthy, white counterpart who will learn a valuable lesson in the course of the movie), and William (Legacy of warriors in the family to live up to). There's also Criminal-Made-Good-By-War, Churchy, and Young-Green-First-To-Die. Sure, they have names in the movie, but we don't care because they are just stereotypes, cinematic roles filled with a precision and predictability that only Hollywood could continue to churn out and think it was still new. And, of course, the squadron is trained by the paternal Captain Thenault, a by-the-book, serious officer who sheds it all in the face of good, American insubordination and victory.

I've read Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers that were more original than this movie.

The characters are abysmal Hollywood archetypes that teach all of the same lessons of war that we've learned before. And whenever the flyboys win a victory that does not end in a way that might lead to some serious dialogue and soul-searching, Thenault runs on screen with a new target that has to be hit now! The thing is, in addition to exceptionally predictable characters (again, I'm talking the characters in this movie, not the historical personas on which they are based!), Flyboys has one of the most predictable plots of any war movie.

I'm not only talking about the victories the Lafayette Escadrille manages to pull off; this isn't "The Empire Strikes Back" and knowing that the French and Americans do eventually beat the Germans, one cannot expect the new pilots to lose every battle. Those are predictable, but even more predictable is the "kill order." Which characters die and when is so unbelievably foreseeable that I got them all. I'm not joking. Should you decide to forego my recommendation and you actually watch this film, here's a game for you and your friends to play. When the squadron is fully assembled, but before they fly their first combat mission, write a list of the characters in the squadron and guess who will survive the movie and who will not. For those who you figure will not live, guess the order that they perish. If you've watched anything more than twenty war movies (about WWI and beyond) in your life, you ought to be able to get the order and the list of who survives.

That's how bad this movie is.

It's so bad that it's not worth discussing the characters. There are no characters here, they are all "types." They are all pre-filled roles that we've seen before. So, of course, there is a romantic subplot for Blaine, who finds a young French woman to romance, a reconciliation between Skinner and Briggs when Briggs realizes racism is wrong, and a moment that the leader of the squadron opens up to Blaine. This movie could have been one of those parody movies (a la Scary Movie and Date Movie), it is so hackneyed toward "types" as opposed to genuine characters.

The only things that are at all remarkable about this movie are the performances by Jean Reno (Thenault) and James Franco (Blaine). Reno, who I had only seen before in the terrible remake of The Pink Panther (reviewed here!) plays Thenault with a realistic, leaderly detachment that makes him seem more like he might have a backstory to him than the others. Reno has a dignity and posture that allows him to pull off the leadership role quite well.

As for James Franco, he continues to impress me. I first saw Franco in the amazing television series Freaks And Geeks (reviewed here!) and watched him hold his own dramatically on-screen opposite Robert De Niro in City By The Sea (reviewed here!). Franco has the cocky American strut that makes his ideal for this type of role. He brings to the role a confidence that makes the viewer believe that his character would be together enough to improvise amputating a friend's hand to save his life. And he has almost enough ability to make the viewer believe that he cares enough about the fight to fight it, given that once he made it to France he was essentially off the hook. Franco makes the viewer believe that Blaine dreams of being something better and something more, even when the script does not make those motivations clear. The look Franco gives at the beginning of the movie while watching footage of spitfires in the air sells us on his direction.

Unfortunately, it's nowhere near enough to save this movie. Flyboys is too predictable, long and slow in all the worst ways to be worth watching. And if the pilots on whom this movie was based truly were as the movie portrays them, it's a shame the movie wasn't made before their lives were a series of bad Hollywood cliches. Somehow, I suspect our heroes in reality were a bit better than that.

For other works featuring Tyler Labine, please check out my reviews of:
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Zack And Miri Make A Porno
Boston Legal - Season 3
The X-Files - Season 3


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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